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By Jennifer Hudson Taylor
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2010 Jennifer Hudson Taylor
All rights reserved.
Akira MacKenzie willed her knees not to fail her. She watched Gregor Matheson's blond head disappear through the astonished crowd that slowly parted for him. He would have made her a perfect husband, but now he deserted her, placing her safety in jeopardy once again.
She swallowed the rising lump in her throat and straightened her shoulders. Akira clasped her hands in front of her and turned to face the expectant gazes of her Scottish clan. Hushed murmurs flowed through the crowd until one by one their voices faded into the restless wind.
"'Twill be no wedding this day." She allowed her strong voice to echo over her kinsmen. The earth vibrated, and thunder rumbled in the distance. Akira paused, but naught seemed amiss. Green hills and hidden valleys lay undisturbed, draped with wildflowers and tall grass that rippled in the gentle breeze. Strands of golden-red hair lifted from her shoulder and brushed against her face. She whisked a wayward lock from her eyes.
She turned to Father Mike for encouragement. He stood in a brown robe gathered with a rope cord tied at the waist around his thin frame. Holding a small book in the crook of his arm, he shook his graying head. His aging face held laugh lines around the corners of his eyes and mouth, but today his wrinkles were pulled into a sad frown. His soft brown eyes settled upon her with understanding. Akira wanted to run weeping into his arms, but she held herself still.
More thunder rumbled and grew closer.
"'Tis the MacPhearsons!" A lone woman cried in alarm, pointing past where Akira stood on the grassy knoll.
Panic slashed through her clansmen, and they scattered to find shelter behind her father's castle gates. Unarmed MacKenzies sought their weapons before the riders reached them. Expecting a wedding celebration, few were prepared for battle.
Akira turned. The thunder she had heard was an army of warriors descending upon them. A savage barbarian riding a fierce gray stallion charged toward her, his army in quick pursuit. Together, the lead warrior and stallion embodied power. He led them as befit a king, but when his gaze fixed on Akira, her blood ran cold.
The MacPhearson chief wanted his bride. Akira hated her fear of him as it took root and gripped her insides.
"Lord, give me strength," she prayed.
She would not run. No, she would stand and wait for him. If it was peace he wanted, then peace she would give him. She'd be calm, meet his gaze, and remind him of the letter her father received six months ago from the MacPhearson chief saying he would not honor the betrothal their parents had pledged years ago when she and Evan MacPhearson were children. Accepting it as the insult it was, Akira's father granted his permission for her to wed a man of her choice. She had chosen Gregor Matheson, but now she realized even that had been a mistake.
Her brother Gavin broke through the madness and grabbed Akira's arm, propelling her toward the castle gates. The sound of horses' hooves pounding into the earth grew louder. One gray stallion erupted forth, his rider targeting her. Knowing Gavin held no weapon to defend them, she fretted for his life and tried to wrench herself free.
"Run, Gavin! Run!" she yelled above the chaos.
Gavin wouldn't leave her. He struggled to pull her along, but her heavy satin gown caught under her feet, nearly tripping her. While most wedding gowns of her clanswomen were of varying colors, Akira had wanted to look like a white dove. The front was simple, but elegant, with no beads or trim. The long sleeves widened at the wrists and the skirt portion draped over her figure like a long tapestry.
"Hurry, lass!" he urged as the material ripped.
The stallion's labored breathing almost pulsed down her back. Her skin crawled with tiny prickles. The dark rider would soon overtake them. Jerking free of Gavin's hold, she again urged her brother to safety.
"Leave me, Gavin." Tears of despair threatened to snap her control. "I'll not have ye die at the hand of a MacPhearson because of me."
"Nay. Never!" Gavin protested.
The MacPhearson warrior bent, and his heavy fist slammed against Gavin's jaw. Her brother landed several feet back. Iron fingers gripped her waist. The MacPhearson tightened his hold across her middle as he pulled her backward and up onto the horse. Akira screamed and kicked, lashing out blindly against him. He fought her with one hand while he guided his charger forward. The reins almost tumbled from his hand, and he lunged to grab them. His hard elbow rammed her cheek in the process.
"Don't fight me, lass," he roared. "Or else the blood of innocent men will be upon yer head!"
His words cut into her like a blade, and she ceased her struggles as he threw her over his lap and across the racing animal's back. Akira believed him. A MacPhearson could have no compassion in a heart as black as death.
"How dare ye, MacPhearson!" Akira's father bellowed behind them. She stole a glance through her tumbling hair. He ran after them with a fist raised in mid-air. He roared another promise of revenge before bending over his knees to catch his breath. Her father shook his graying head in disbelief.
"I love ye, Da," she whispered, committing his image to memory.
The forest swallowed them, and for hours the MacPhearsons kept their fast pace. Akira tried to calm her heaving stomach, but it continued to twirl as she lay over his lap. The ride would have been much more tolerable had she been able to sit on her backside. Instead, her stomach suffered from the jarring of the stallion's movements. The nausea finally overtook her, and she vomited.
They stopped. Left with no other recourse, she tried to wipe her mouth with her hand.
The warrior ripped off part of his plaid hanging over his tunic that reached down to his knees like a long shirt and belted at the waist. He wet it with water from his flask and offered it to her. His plaid of red and gray colors fell forward, and he shoved it back over his shoulder. Since the MacPhearsons lived in a different region, their plaids were made by a different weaver from the MacKenzies'. Akira's clan often wore plaids of blue and green.
She lifted her gaze to his menacing glare. Akira trembled in spite of her silent resolve not to fear him, for he looked as if he wanted to beat her, and she felt certain it wasn't beneath him.
He leaned forward, thrusting the material in her face. "Take it and clean yerself," he demanded, as if the sight of her disgusted him.
Grimacing, she looked down at his leg covered with her sickness. Her cheeks grew warm. He deserved what he had gotten for throwing her on his stallion and hauling her off like a prize he had won.
"Lass, don't make me repeat myself." His lack of patience was quite evident in his tone, but even more so as he shoved the damp material in her face.
Akira snatched it out of his hand and glared back, momentarily forgetting her danger. "Ye blunderin' fool, 'tis yer own fault it happened. Ye got no more than ye deserved."
He leaned forward, his nose barely an inch from hers, and she leaned back as far as she dared without toppling off his stallion. His dark gray eyes turned black, and a vein pulsed rapidly in his neck as he stared down at her.
Once again her temper and boldness had gotten the better of her. Lord, help bridle my tongue, she silently prayed. Deciding she had pushed him far enough, Akira gripped his leg while she stroked the damp cloth over his skin in hopes of diverting his attention from her angry outburst. He flinched at her touch. She dropped his leg with a questioning gaze.
"I told ye to clean yerself, not me."
"I'm not quite as messy." She turned back to her task.
He lifted her from the stallion and dropped her on her unsteady feet. It took her a moment to recover. When she did, she found herself staring at her captor's chest. Tall for a woman, Akira wasn't used to a man's height equaling her own, but this MacPhearson was a giant. His massive shoulders blocked the sun's rays, filtering through the trees.
He bound her hands with a leather strap, pulling the knot secure against the flesh around the fine bones of her wrists. She noticed his skin was a shade darker than hers.
Akira stole the moment to study his profile. Shoulder-length hair the color of potted soil framed an authoritative, square face. His gray eyes were sharp and purposeful as he tended to his task. Up close he appeared more handsome than barbaric. His bronze face bore a recent shave. The bridge of his nose smoothed over his face to striking, high cheekbones. He radiated confidence, but she sensed a stubborn streak hid behind his determined expression.
As he towered over her, she felt a rare fear and trembled. His hands gentled, and his voice softened.
"I'm sorry I was so rough with ye. I didn't mean for my elbow to hit yer cheek." He pulled the leather tighter, making her wince. "I apologize for this inconvenience, but I must see to it that ye canna escape."
He stepped back, rubbing his chin in thoughtful concentration as if contemplating what to do with her. "Ye're no ordinary woman." He crossed his arms and circled Akira, observing her. She could feel the heat of his blazing gaze travel the length of her. "Any other woman would have fled." He paused in front of her and looked into her eyes. "'Twas as if ye were determined to stand yer ground and wait for me until that man encouraged ye to run." He raised a black eyebrow. "Why?"
"They're my family and clansmen. If ye were coming to claim yer bride, then I was the one ye wanted, not them."
"So ye're a courageous lass. Willing to sacrifice yerself for their lives. Is that the way of it then?" He spoke in a firm, yet gentle tone. He touched her swelling cheek with the back of his knuckles. Akira flinched from the uncharacteristic gesture. He dropped his hand.
"Regardless of what ye think, I'm not in the habit of mistreating women." He looked at her intently, his eyes almost willing her to believe him.
She stared over his shoulder at the dark forest, refusing to relieve him of his guilt—if he was human enough to feel any. "My brother did naught to ye. Why did ye hit him?"
"Yer brother would have interfered and caused a massacre of yer people. I had no wish for that to happen, so I took the only option I had. I took care of him before he could strike me and my men retaliate on my behalf."
Akira stepped back in disbelief. She craned her neck to see into his dark gray eyes. "'Twas not the only option. He could still be unconscious this verra moment."
He sighed, crossing his arms over his chest as if she were trying his patience. "I assure ye, lass, yer brother will be fine. I didn't hit him hard."
She leaned up on her tiptoes. "Then my eyes must have been deceiving me, for ye knocked him plumb out."
"Aye, that I did." He grinned with pride, as white, even teeth flashed in contrast to his dark profile. "But the blow will not cause any lasting effects, I assure ye."
"There's not a guilty bone in yer body." A lock of golden-red curls fell forward covering her right eye. She reached up with her bound hands and tossed her long tresses over her shoulder. "Ye had no right to take me from my family."
"Believe as ye wish." He shrugged. "I may have taken ye against yer will, but I never commit harm unless I'm forced." He placed a finger under her chin and tilted her face.
Her mind whirled in a daze. Akira purposely closed her heart to any generosity he might bestow upon her. "Gavin gave ye no reason to hit him. I hope I do naught to force yer mistreatment of me before ye return me to my family." The sarcasm in her voice overshadowed her fear.
A sudden frown perplexed his otherwise perfect face, and she sensed a change in his demeanor. In one fluid motion, he lifted her upon his stallion. This time she was properly seated as he mounted up behind her. He urged the beast beneath them forward, signaled to his men, and they were again on their way. Akira had nearly forgotten that others were present to witness their exchange.
Under the circumstances, he set a much slower pace than she would have anticipated, knowing the MacKenzies could be following close behind. They traveled a good distance in silence.
After a long while had passed, he bent toward her ear. "I'm sorry."
His warm breath floated over the skin at her nape, and she fought the urge to shudder. His apology stunned her speechless. Warriors did not apologize, least of all to bound prisoners or to women.
"Whether ye believe me or not, I do not mistreat women. And the blow to yer cheek wouldn't have happened if ye hadn't put up such a struggle."
Akira remained silent. How was she supposed to have responded while being kidnapped away from her family and all that she held dear? She had no idea what to expect. All she knew was that she depended upon the Lord to give her sufficient grace to get through whatever she would be forced to endure at their hands.
"I see ye've naught else to say." Disappointment carried in his voice.
She arched an eyebrow. He expected friendly conversation while he carted her halfway across the country against her will and kept her in bonds? "What would ye have me say?" She turned sideways in the saddle. "I can only wonder at what ye plan to do with me. Should I beg for mercy in hopes ye'll spare my life? Or should I wait 'til ye've no more use for me?" She straightened away from him.
He chuckled. "I appreciate the ideas."
"Why not take me home now before my da comes after me and more blood is shed?"
He tensed as if her words had struck some deep chord within him. "Believe me, lass, more bloodshed is not my intention. I took ye because I had to and that's the end of it."
Akira wisely remained silent. The man seemed to contradict even his own character. He didn't want her to believe him a barbarian, yet he had ridden onto MacKenzie land with warriors and carted her off against her will, thrown across his lap like a sack of potatoes. Then he bound her wrists with a leather strap and tried to convince her that he was a caring gentleman with good manners. There could only be one explanation. The man was daft.
* * *
They rode well into the night. Bryce's heavily muscled arms shielded her from branches and other brush in their path. They came to a clearing and Bryce halted. "We'll camp here for the night. There's a small brook beyond those trees." He gestured to the right. He called two men over. "Backtrack and station yerselves to keep watch. I want to know of the first sign of a MacKenzie."
Before she could object, large hands circled her waist and lifted her down. "Follow me." He turned on his heel, leaving her with no choice but to do as directed. He led her into the dark woods, and she wanted nothing more than to turn and run the other way. Twigs cracked beneath the weight of their footsteps. An owl hooted in the distance. A small animal shifted and darted through the leaves. She wondered if it was a rabbit. Crickets sang around them. Akira rubbed her arms in discomfort and crouched close to his back to avoid the leaves and limbs he shoved aside. They reached the brook, and he motioned for her to kneel beside him. She bent and watched him remove more of his plaid. He dipped it into the water and brought it against her face.
She jerked at the cold contact. What was this about?
"I merely want to bathe yer face."
She leaned back. "Nay!"
His hands fell to his sides, still holding his wet plaid in one hand. "I can see the swelling and darkness just below yer eye, even in the moonlight."
As if brought on by his words, the skin under her left eye tightened and grew numb. Her fingers inched to her cheek as she stared at him. He was stern with his men and they rushed to do his bidding. A man did not earn that kind of respect and power with a gentle nature. They feared him, and they wanted his approval. She could see it in their faces when they looked at him. Admiration shone in their expression.
"Ye've no reason to fear me, unless ye plan to make it so," he interrupted her thoughts. "I'll treat ye with all the respect owed and due a lady, but heed my warning: Don't anger me by trying to escape. There is naught I despise worse than distrust and betrayal."
Akira stood to her full height, prepared to challenge him. "As yer prisoner I owe ye no trust or loyalty."
He rose beside her. "Consider yerself warned. 'Twould ease yer fear of me." He lowered his voice, and she sensed his tone carried great meaning.
"I'm not afraid. I simply wish ye not to touch me." She hoped her tone carried the contempt she felt.
"As ye wish." He stepped closer, pointing a finger in her face. "But I warn ye. Ye'll remain bound, for I'll not give ye the opportunity to flee. If ye eat, I shall feed ye. If ye wash, I shall help ye. Ye belong to my brother, and I trust no one else save Balloch."
Akira stood still, stunned. He was not the MacPhearson clan chief? She belonged to his brother? "Yer not Evan MacPhearson?"
"I am Bryce MacPhearson, the middle son." He grinned. "I see ye've managed to remember the name of the man ye should have been saying yer vows to when I found ye, instead of that oaf ye were about to commit yerself to."
Excerpted from Highland Blessings by Jennifer Hudson Taylor. Copyright © 2010 Jennifer Hudson Taylor. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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